ST. LOUIS — To drive around the City of St. Louis is to encounter a mashed-up, controversial, living gallery of graffiti writing. On this civic front, St. Louis doesn’t suffer from a lack of participants; there’s an active enough scene that the city employs a five-man crew, working year-round to paint over and/or power-wash affected walls. While some of that effort’s aimed at gang tagging, most of work targets the familiar names, seen over-and-over, not just in the 62-square miles of St. Louis proper, but all over our too-sprawled metro region. After a time, the tags become common and recognizable, especially throughout the more-vibrant, artistic corridors of the city, along reborn streets like Cherokee, South Grand, Washington and Locust.
In these zones, the names appear so frequently, oftentimes as quick, off-the-cuff “throw-ups,” via spray paint or marker, that they become part of the neighborhood vernacular: Horse, Kink, Bang, Ilson, Dozer, Virgl … all are currently “bombing” St. Louis’ urban core with regularity. Occasionally a name appears with such frequency, or is seen on wildly-difficult-to-paint spots that the writer’s name moves beyond the margins and gets dropped in casual conversations around town, among folks who would otherwise seldom stop to think about the topic. To varying degrees, St. Louisans of all sorts are familiar with the tags of Red Fox, Rat Fag and Sabot, whose arguably the most-prolific graf writer in town at this moment.
Last spring, it was one of the aforementioned who called together and hosted a meet-up in St. Louis, with graffiti writers from all over the Midwest coming to St. Louis for a weekend of unbridled, unofficial and very much unsanctioned activity. Not content to take on the legal walls, this ad hoc crew moved through a variety of neighborhoods and industrial zones, leaving behind such a trail that it was obvious that something different had just gone down. Along the wide Jefferson Avenue, for example, a couple dozen pieces cropped up seemingly-overnight last May, including a number from Louisville’s own Brrr.
Frequently found alongside the handle 2buck, the whimsical logo of Brrr, well-familiar to residents of Louisville, was now a presence in St. Louis. Among the buildings he touched was the house of Jeff Lockheed, the owner of St. Louis’ pre-eminent art bar, The Venice Cafe. Lockheed responded to the bright, blue Brrr face on the side of his home with some sharply-worded verbiage of his own, chalked onto his front walls; quickly, point-and-counterpoint were sprayed away by St. Louis’s Operation Brightside, only a day after Lockheed’s story hit the local news.
While that particular Brrr face was the one that caught the media’s attention, it was far from the only one to appear in St. Louis. From the warehouses of the industrial riverfront south of the Gateway Arch to the obscure dumpsters of dimestores half-way across town, the droopy-lidded, top-hatted Brrr creation seemed to pop all at once; it wasn’t there one week, it was everywhere the next. For those of us with a strange fascination in following these stories told on walls, it seemed as if someone new had the claimed the town for himself. The resultant news of the meet-up, though, erased the thinking that we’d seen a new, prolific local; instead, we’d realized that we’d been visited by a tourist, here to leave some marks and to help cement a regional rep.
So it was interesting to hear the news from Louisville later in the summer of 2013, the stories about a young artist named Philip Rodriguez who apparently went into the store Regalo, where he took 19 shirts that bore the recognizable Brrr image. The reports indicated that a scuffle ensued, Rodriguez left with the unsanctioned shirts, and, in time, the Louisville parlor game “who is Brrr?” was pretty much extinguished, the names of Rodriguez and Brrr now permanently linked. (Rodriguez was guilty of theft, harassment and third-degree criminal mischief, according to court documents.)
In St. Louis, the Brrr’s aren’t as numerous as in Louisville, obviously. More than a half-year later, they’re on the wane now, buffed from some walls by the city’s anti-graf crews, or covered up by other tags. These are legacies built on impermanence, for sure, the actors ever-changing. Brrr, though? Well, Brrr made quite the impression on St. Louis.
Thomas Crone has written about and photographed graffiti in St. Louis for various local websites. Links are found on his homepage, thomascrone.com/graffiti/.